Political pressures intensify on Minnesota’s few black lawmakers

Published 9:35 am Wednesday, July 6, 2016

By Tim Pugmire

MPR.org/90.1 FM

ST. PAUL —St. Paul state Rep. Rena Moran earned an A+ recently from the group Voices for Racial Justice for her work on racial equity, an issue she takes very seriously.

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Her DFL primary challenger, however, is not impressed with the election-year grade. Rashad Turner, an activist with the Black Lives Matter organization in St. Paul, says Moran hasn’t done enough to address the state’s widening racial economic disparities and it’s time for a new approach.

“We need a fresh face. We need some change in leadership, someone who’s going to take that fight into the House and Representatives and be loud and stern and really do what the people need,” he said, explaining why he’s taking on Moran. “We’ve been out here hitting doors, talking to voters, and what we’re really hearing from the community is we need elected officials who are going to listen to the community.”

Moran calls Turner’s criticism “comical,” but adds that she can’t understand why another black candidate wants to unseat her when she’s currently the only African-American member of the 134-member Minnesota House. “To run against the only black member of this body and not try to find a way to add on to this body is a little disheartening.”

Only three of 201 Minnesota state lawmakers are African-American. All face primary contests on Aug. 9. Their challengers, who are also black, say the legislators they want to replace aren’t changing things fast enough.

“For me, it’s not an issue about race, where we want to have more blacks in the Legislature. For me, it’s about whoever can do the job, whether they’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian,” said Patwin Lawrence, a former chair of the Council On Black Minnesotans hoping to unseat Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. “It’s who can get the job done, who can build coalitions amongst Democrats and Republicans to get the job done.”

Lawrence also says Champion is not doing enough about disparities. But he also points to the ethics compliant Senate Republicans filed in 2014, accusing Champion of threatening local school leaders. The ethics panel deadlocked on whether to investigate further.

Champion, a first-term senator who previously served four years in the House, strongly rejects Lawrence’s criticisms. He insists the ethics allegation never happened and said he’s proud of his legislative accomplishments, including $70 million passed last session for tackling disparities.

“I think I have a very solid record of supporting our district and making sure I improve the quality of life for not just my district but for Minnesotans,” he said.

Champion shares Moran’s concern about the lack of diversity in the Legislature. He also shares her concern about challenges from other black candidates.

“We have to grow the base, not just go after other people of color,” he said. “Sometimes people think it’s easier to go after us, because we’re the low-hanging fruit, right?”

Champion’s colleague, two-term Minneapolis DFLer Sen. Jeff Hayden, who’s facing a primary challenge from Mohamoud Hassan, has another theory. He believes familiarity often breeds contempt in urban legislative districts.

“They have a tendency to take what their issues are and their problems and the things that they see going on in society, and they need somebody to try to blame or at least somebody to kind of hold responsible,” Hayden said. “And that often is the person they know the best.”

Hayden is facing his district’s voters for the first time since questions surfaced about his own conduct in office. Senate Republicans accused Hayden in an ethics complaint of benefiting personally from his role with the defunct nonprofit Community Action of Minneapolis. Hayden has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

GOP lawmakers are still pushing the issue. But it’s unclear whether Hayden’s opponent is. Hassan declined repeated interview requests for this story.